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Fruit Salad

The wreckage Hurricane Andrew left in Homestead, Florida.

National Hurricane Center/AFP/Getty Images)

The catastrophe, it seems, struck a zone of advanced media consciousness. Survivors of Hurricane Andrew emerged from their fractured dwellings to spray-paint sound bites on the wreckage for out-of-town camera crews and reporters. On the road from Miami, roofless houses come into view bearing witticisms like: "Andrew Thanks--NOT" and "Andrew the ultimate blow job." Driving deeper into the apocalyptic landscape of denuded trees and Mix-Mastered debris, one finds variations on the theme of "Looters shot, no wake" and ironic reprises of real estate come-ons: "400 dollars moves you in" and "If you lived here you would be home." It seems sad that the victims of the most stark and authentic of events-a natural disaster--now feel the need to vie for attention with advertising slogans. Grief has gone from public spectacle to public relations. But it makes some sense for South Florida to market its tragedy. National media coverage--now diminishing fast--is the area's best hope for a share of limited outside aid. On CNN, Homestead is campaigning against Bosnia, Somalia, Nicaragua, and now Kauai too, for the sympathy vote.

At the scene, questions of what actually happened become even murkier. A correspondent for Miami's Channel 7 reports live from a trailer park where she says twenty-one of the fifty-five people who died during the storm were killed. Nineteen, she said, perished during a suicidal "Hurricane Party." I heard no other reference to this grim event. According to the Miami Herald, the death toll was fifteen. The New York Times makes it thirty-eight. There's a similar variety in the numbers of homeless people, damaged homes, lost jobs, and so forth. The desire for numbers is powerful, but we will probably never know the real ones. Homestead had one of the least settled, most poorly documented populations in the country. It was the product of an economic boomlet that accounted for the growth of trailer parks, migrant labor camps, and retirement villages. The biggest victims of the storm were transplanted people; many were refugees whose immigration status and connection to the area were tenuous to begin with. With no stakes left to pull up, many simply walked away. One day an Oldsmobile with its roof bashed in pulled up to my sister's fruit farm. It carried an old Mexican man with an injured hand, his daughter, who used to baby-sit for my nieces, and her husband. Their home and fruit-packing jobs were no more. They were moving North again, with no fixed destination, in search of better luck. Steinbeck might have called it the Limes of Wrath.

Few Floridians seem to want to discuss the issue of responsibility. A report that wind speeds reached 200 mph was greeted with relief, as if to say, you see, nothing can withstand a force like that. Survivors want to believe that the storm was an equal opportunity destroyer, meting out punishment at random, regardless of social station. Yet to drive around the wreckage was to see damage relative mostly to wealth, and secondarily to the quality of the construction. Some brick and stone houses lost roofs and windows, but they stood. Older wooden houses remained substantially intact. But new clapboard tract homes were a tortured mess, and trailers simply came apart. Evidence is now surfacing that building inspectors didn't inspect, and developers developed political connections that allowed them to break the rules. This is becoming a national story. But people in Homestead don't really want to hear it. It is as if shoddy construction in the hurricane zone was a family shame rather than somebody's fault.

President Bush appears to have made two mistakes. The first was to wait four days before sending in the Army. I'm not sure where the survivors would be without it. The Army not only keeps the peace and brings a sense of security; it provides hot meals, clean water, shelter, and essential information. The sight of a military construction brigade replacing the roof on the school my nieces attend was the most inspiring I have seen during my stay. Bush's second mistake is his failure to appoint some high-profile person to direct the recovery. FEMA, run by a political crony of John Sununu's, is invisible and seemingly useless in coordinating the relief effort. To direct the recovery, and to dispel the feeling of chaos and hopelessness that still envelops South Dade County, the president should appoint a hurricane czar, answerable to him, and available to Andrew's victims.

My sister Kiki and her husband, Marc, moved here twelve years ago to raise fruit. They came because Homestead, on the edge of the Everglades, is the only part of the country with a climate suitable for the tropical crops Marc wanted to grow. A horticultural visionary and a fruit obsessive, he has pioneered the North American cultivation of lychees, carambolas, atemoyas, sugar apples, jackfruit, mamey, and other delicious things you've never tasted. Until recently, his family's existence was Edenic; surrounded by an endless variety of trees, my nieces could name and describe more kinds of fruit by age 4 than most people can at 40. On the eve of the storm their groves were thriving-they rushed to harvest what they could of a 100,000-pound crop of longans, an Asian fruit similar to lychees, which was their first in five years. By comparison with some others, Kiki and Marc were truly lucky. They, their four small children, and pets were unharmed. Though their house suffered some redecoration (the patio, rebuilt as a porch, is a patio once again), it's habitable. They have generator power, bottled water, and a cellular phone. But their 175 acres of lush greenery has been, as Marc simply puts it, "laid flat."

Like most of fellow fruit farmers, my brother-in-law rejected insurance for his crop and trees as too expensive. Thus his only hope for rebuilding his business is the government. Working against him is the fact that devastated Florida lychee growers don't tug at the heartstrings quite the way Kansas wheat farmers do. Working in his favor is that this is an election year, and the bailout bidding war, is already under way. But my brother-in-law is not the type to gloom around-waiting to see what help is coming. Manic in normal times, he is now in a state of productive hysteria. He has been putting in fourteen-hour days with his crew since the storm, clearing dead trees and administering first aid to live ones, mending sprinkler lines and refueling the diesel generator that is his family's only source of power for the foreseeable future. He has no income, and it will probably be five years before his farm looks again as it did on August 23. Still, a lot of trees survived. By the time they return to bear fruit, maybe Safeway will know what white sapotes are.